One of the pieces of (admittedly questionable) advice that writers get a lot is “don’t use adjectives.” Since I’m fond of adjectives as a tool for describing things–and my job as a writer includes describing things–I never quite got this. I can understand “use adjectives sparingly” but then we get into the work of parsing what, exactly, is meant by “sparingly”. More often than not the longer I live the more I’m convinced writing is like sex. You can read all kinds of advice but ultimately you know what feels good because you just…do.
Mentally now I’m stretching that analogy to encompass all activities related to writing and I’m wondering if that means every book I read is the writerly equivalent of watching porn. “I’m just trying to see how they do it!” In this world I suppose Stephen King is our Ron Jeremy and JK Rowling is our Jenna Jameson. And there I’ve just exhausted my encyclopaedic knowledge of the porn industry.
Whoops. We kind of got off at a siding there, didn’t we? We were talking about adjectives. I never got the purpose of that advice until a few years ago when I was reading a by-the-numbers police procedural and we had to watch a woman run a tortoise shell brush with stiff bristles through her waist-length platinum blond hair and then pick up her buttery leather Coach handbag and clutch in her blood-red lacquered nails. I thought I was going to turn loose a throaty cat-like screech by the end of the paragraph.
Adjectives are good for creating a sense of place, as long as that sense of place is NOT “pages 192-417 of the dictionary”.
The most important thing I have to say about adjectives is this:
Adjectives are not nouns.
And that’s the true thrust of this post. I’ve read enough conversations lately about The Gays, The Illegals, and so forth. I’m sure that someday I will be included in some discussion about “the fats” that reduces me to an adjective.
It’s just so weird, our compulsion to do this. It turns people into one-dimensional, easily dismissed caricatures. Maybe that is exactly why we do it. It is far easier to be cruel to someone if you’ve first removed their personhood by depriving them of the basic courtesy of a noun. A name.
“Congratulations, Mrs. Coble! It’s a gay!” said no doctor in any delivery room ever.
“Mr. and Mrs. Phil N.D. Blanque, we regret to inform you that your black was killed in action today.”
Adjectives are fine things. They are not nouns. All people deserve the courtesy of being treated like the nouns they are.